When James A. Henshall wrote his classic Book of the Black Bass in 1881 he courted the ire of trout and salmon fishermen alike by describing the bass as "inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims." Any angler who has ever hooked into a largemouth like the one shown at left will agree with his enthusiasm, unbounded as it may seem to be. The qualities that make a fish game, Henshall went on to explain, are "its aptitude to rise to the artificial fly, its readiness to take a natural bait, its exhibition of strength and cunning...in its efforts to break away after being hooked, and its excellence as a food-fish"—and the black bass certainly qualifies on all counts.
What Dr. Henshall did not know, although he may well have suspected it, is that the black bass, and specifically the largemouth, is the intellectual giant of American freshwater fishes. In a research project at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago last year (What Makes Them Hit the Lure, SI, July 24, 1961), psychologist-photographer Elgin Ciampi noted, to the chagrin of many trout fishermen, that the largemouth bass was superior in brainpower to the smallmouth, muskellunge, pike and trout, in that order. Ciampi's findings were so provocative that he decided to continue his research at Florida's Silver Springs, where for six weeks this spring, with aqualung and underwater camera, he probed the behavior of wild bass in their natural habitat.
Ciampi's extensive investigations in Florida not only confirmed earlier indications of the black bass's superior intelligence but revealed a complex and highly organized social structure in which the bass, as an individual in his own particular environment, faces problems not so very dissimilar to those that man must face in his. Whether he is toiling to prepare his nest for the lady of his choice, fighting to protect the progeny he has spawned or struggling to survive in the underwater jungle in which he lives, the actions of the largemouth are bold and determined. When his nest is threatened, he will courageously attack an enemy many times his size. When aroused or angered, he will strike at almost anything, a characteristic that further endears him to the angler. Shown here and on the following pages are Elgin Ciampi's unique and revealing pictures of the ways in which the largemouth bass meets the significant challenges of his life.
Spraying clouds of silt into the water as he fans the sandy bottom with his tail to clear away debris, a male largemouth bass (right) prepares his nest for the brief and seasonal riles of reproduction. Hovering above him, her body swollen with eggs, a female bass awaits the overtures that will lure her down upon the nest.
August 19, 1962
Twisting and turning, a pair of spawning bass swim repeatedly over the nest, the determined pattern of their movements interrupted spasmodically by the convulsive ejection of roe and milt. The brief courtship will end when spawning is completed. Then the female, no longer needed, will be driven away by her mate.
Watchful and belligerent, a male bass hovers close to his newly hatched progeny, keeping guard over the tiny quarter-inch fry that now swarm like gnats above the nest. The male's constant vigilance begins as soon as the eggs are spawned, continues until the hatched fry, one to two weeks old, scatter to shift for themselves.
At five weeks, an almost perfectly developed fingerling must fend for himself against a host of predators, including cannibalistic parents, brothers and sisters. His own oversized mouth is already proficient at snapping up the microscopic animal plankton, insect larvae and smaller fish on which he in turn preys.
Darting through the heavy vegetation of his favorite feeding ground. jaws poised to snap open at the moment of contact, a mature bass closes in on a frog. By the time he weighs two pounds, the bass is a voracious feeder with varied tastes. He will bolt down anything from a crayfish to a duckling or young muskrat.
In the watery jungle in which he lives, the mature bass is more often the pursuer than the pursued; but at any moment his part in the scheme of things can be abruptly reversed. Surprised by a sudden attack from the rear, a bass swims desperately to escape a quicker-witted and more agile long-bodied otter.
In a final effort to escape, the bass, its large mouth agape and its tail thrashing, fights to free himself from the otter's teeth. But the deadly game is already lost. In a moment, the otter will take the bass onto the shore, play with it briefly as a cat does with a mouse and then eat it tail first, bones and all.